03 October, 2009

Who's brave enough to mess with Vegemite?

Melbourne Herald Sun, 3rd October, 2009

My friend on the phone was ropeable. "Have you seen what they've done to Vegemite? Called their new product iSnack2. What sort of name's that? They should be whipped, messing about with an Australian icon like that."

My friend, an art director for many years, is passionate about his marketing and this move pressed all the wrong buttons. "What are they going to do next, rebrand Coca Cola ‘iDrink'? 'Cause that's what you do with it." I'll modestly pass over his suggestions for Sorbent toilet paper. Let's just say he was annoyed. And he was not alone.

The company, Kraft, was hit by such a flood of indignation that within days they announced that the new name was ditched and something better would be found. But how could this happen with a name that was democratically selected?

Kraft had asked its customers to name the new product - basically Vegemite with added cheese - in a competition that drew 48,000 entries. You can imagine the range of responses they received, with varying degrees of printability but very little marketing strategy.

The name they really wanted was CheesyMite but that already belonged to Baker's Delight. Instead they chose to take the trendy, digital iPod, iPhone, iTunes track and even added the two at the end to make it sound like software. But it isn't software so it just sounded phoney. The idea wasn't thought through to explore all the angles.

Sometimes public input can work, but it has to be managed well. NASA recently announced the winner of its own competition. To name the new planet rover that will explore Mars in 2011. The winner was 12 year old Clara Ma from Kansas - and the Mars Rover will be called Curiosity. "Houston, this is Mars - Curiosity has landed!" Yeah that sort of works, a lot better than iRove.

The attraction of a naming competition is all the free publicity it can generate. Zoos are fond of producing fluffy little animals and asking the public to name them. This guarantees that your panda or lion cub or giraffe makes the news and then gets repeated mentions until the name is chosen.

The secret is to make sure the final decision is made in-house. Otherwise you can have problems like another NASA contest earlier this year. They asked for a name for part of the International Space Station. Comedian Stephen Colbert urged his viewers to write-in ‘Colbert' and won with a hefty 230,000 votes. Fortunately the judges retained the last word.

This February Virgin launched their new cut-price trans-Pacific airline. And they too decided to put it to a vote. Their competition drew thousands of suggestions, but they were not allowed to use the word ‘Virgin' for legal reasons. The final choice was less than thrilling: ‘V Australia'. But could we have lived with one of the also-rans like ‘Matilda Blue' or ‘Didgeree Blue'?

The big contest at the moment is not for a name but for a slogan. Minister Simon Crean offered $20 million to the advertising agency that could come up with an Australian slogan better than ‘So where the bloody hell are you?' (Not difficult.) But up there with ‘100% New Zealand' or South Africa's ‘Rainbow Nation'. Big ask.

Now once upon a time you'd get half a dozen of an agency's most creative minds and lock them in a luxury hotel suite for a long weekend. They would then brainstorm and debate, applying logic or emotion depending on the time of day or night, and filling sheets of butcher's paper with dozens of scrawled ideas.

Finally the Creative Director would reduce the jumble down to ten good lines which would be researched. Hopefully you'd end up with two good candidates that would work whichever one the client chose. That's called professional marketing. But hey, a competition's much more fun isn't it?



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